How to Eat with the Seasons to Improve Immunity

By Ellen Goldsmith MSOM, L.Ac., Dip.C.H. /

How to Eat with the Seasons to Improve Immunity

Chinese medicine and its 3,000-year-old tradition of embedding food as medicine in the culture can teach us a lot, no matter what culture we are from or live in now.

The basics of Chinese nutritional therapy are steeped in the foundations of Chinese medicine, on the observation of nature and our unique interaction with it. Each of us live in specific climates, we live through seasons and their changes and each of us has a unique physical constitution and condition. These considerations are important to consider when making food choices and recommendations.

Food can be one of our first forms of medicine to enhance the immune system, prevent infection and in minimizing the effect of the virus in its initial stages. Chinese medicine’s unique approach to food as medicine provides a more specific and individualized approach to health.

The Seasonal Changes

The importance of cyclical and seasonal changes has an impact on our health. Each of us lives in a changing climate in which we are experiencing unprecedented changes in weather (warmer winters and hotter summers), extreme fluctuations in weather and disturbed growing seasons.

traditional chinese medicine

The food we eat, though no matter how “healthy,” is only as beneficial to us as our capacity to break down, digest, transform and assimilate it, which is attributed to Stomach and Spleen Yang Qi. The harmonious process of digestion is key to the quality of our vitality and Qi, our physical treasure. And the state of our Qi creates the physiological ground for a strong and clear spirit or Shen, our most subtle treasure. Thus, we not only nourish our bodies to prevent disease but to nourish a stable and well balanced state of mind.

This article will outline food strategies to improve general health (supporting the digestive capacity and the Stomach/Spleen network), provide you with general and specific guidelines from a Chinese medicine perspective on foods, cooking methods and lifestyle recommendations to support your health during these challenging times.

The effect of stressors on your health

If our health is compromised due to poor underlying health conditions, stress, overwork or fatigue we become more susceptible to acute illness as our protective Qi is diminished and our immune system is taxed. So what do we do? First things first, we need to remove those obstacles to cure which obstruct healing and are interwoven in our lifestyle and the foods we eat:

  • Stress is inevitable during this time. However, we can learn to manage and lower our stress response with exercise (walking, biking, yoga, strength training, tai chi or qi gong, swimming), meditation practices, any artistic outlet, strong emotional bonds with friends and family, being out in nature. Stress can lead to anxiety, insomnia, physical tension, reactivity and mood swings.

  • Improve sleep. Poor sleep is a tremendous burden on the immune system. If you are having trouble with sleep cut back on caffeine and stimulating and spicy foods, try a hot bath before bed. Add in calming herbal teas such as chamomile, chrysanthemum, skullcap, lavender, lemon balm or licorice.

  • Move your body. Movement is crucial to moving the lymphatic system and moving fluids through the body. Gentle exercise is just fine. Do what makes you feel good; dance, walk, do yoga, tai chi or qi gong, bike or swim. But move at least 30-minutes a day.

beach meditation

     Support a healthy and harmonized Stomach and Spleen by:

    • Eating regular meals. Even if your meals are small regular eating is important. Blood sugar regulation reduces stress on the endocrine system and digestive system.

    • Avoid overeating. Overeating taxes our digestive system the center of good health in the body and adds to stagnation and dampness. Overeating happens for so many different reasons and it can be hard to change. Here are some ways to work with it:

      • See if you can serve yourself from the stove. Make a plate and stop after eating that plate.

      • Chew. Chew. Chewing well slows down everything, is calming to the nervous system and helps the digestion of food. Try chewing your food at least 30 times and you will start to note a big difference.

      • Breathe in and breathe out, over and over again. This is enormously calming to the whole body.

    • Avoid foods that contribute to a warm and damp condition in the body such as spicy, greasy, fatty or creamy foods (rich sauces, ice cream), heavy dairy usage, shrimp, sugar (including artificial sweeteners) and alcohol.

    • Avoid foods that can be hard on digestion such as raw and cold foods ( especially foods eaten directly from the refrigerator) which weaken the stomach fire and digestive capacity as raw and cold food require enormous amount of stomach qi to break down.

    • Cooking methods: Avoid fried foods, heavy grilling or the overuse of heavy animal fat in cooking.

    • Eat foods that are easy to digest and are nourishing such as lightly cooked vegetable broths or soups or congee (a rice soup made with ratios of 1 cup rice to 12 cups of water cooked slowly for 2 hours).

    • The rainbow of colors on your plate. Include foods that have all the colors: orange/yellow, red, green, green and more green, beige, blue or black. This will ensure a balance of the five flavors (sweet, sour, salty, pungent and bitter).
    • Foods of a neutral thermal or slightly warming thermal nature such as whole grains, beans and legumes, carrots, winter squashes, nuts and seeds, mushrooms of all varieties.
    • Vegetables: radishes, daikon, scallions which all have a pungent and dispersing nature. Include dark leafy greens.

    • Fruits eaten whole are hydrating and cleansing. Gently cooking fruits make them easier to digest. Pears have an affinity for the lungs are sweet, slightly sour and cooling. Apples are sweet and sour, hydrating and support the stomach and spleen. Bananas and other tropical fruits have higher sugar content and a colder nature and thus are best to avoid. Oranges are high in sugar but can be eaten (not drunk) in small quantities to alleviate thirst. On another note the zest of tangerine, lemon or orange peel can be added to hot tea or foods to activate digestion and help to clear phlegm.

    • Herbs and spices found in your kitchen cabinet are a treasure trove of medicine. Cook with herbs and spices to add flavor, increase palatability and medicinal effect of your cooking. The following aromatic herbs and spices have a gentle warming and moving effect on one’s digestion: Basil, thyme, rosemary, sage, oregano, parsley, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, turmeric, cumin, coriander, ginger (fresh or dried), black pepper (in small amounts), anise seeds, or dill. These herbs and spices while stimulating digestion counter the accumulation of dampness in the body.

    • Fermented foods are eaten throughout the world and are among the oldest and easiest methods of food preparation. Some fermented foods include sauerkraut, pickles, miso, tempeh, tamari, kimchi, kombucha, natto, kefir, and yoghurt. These foods are filled with pro-biotics and support the promotion of beneficial bacteria to the gut a key component of the immune system.

      • As a general guideline during this time the minimization of all dairy is recommended as it contributes to dampness. If you do eat any yogurt or kefir try goat or sheep products, which have a smaller fat molecule and are easier to digest. Add warming aromatic spices (cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg) to the food to counter the cold and damp quality of those foods.

    This article is meant to provide you with another perspective on how we can nourish and protect our health with food. The Chinese have a saying, “food heals and medicine is food.” There are many traditions that honor nurturing life and the food we eat and how we eat is one of the most powerful. Let’s do what we can to nurture and nourish ourselves in this time.

    A note: The information here is not meant to provide medical advice. For a more individualized plan consult your acupuncturist or reach out to me directly.

    Ellen Goldsmith is a nationally board certified, licensed acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist. Her integrative body centered, and intuitive approach is grounded in decades of study and experience working with people to help them reach their goals. Currently she is on faculty with the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine teaching integrative medical fellows on the Energetics of Food and the National University of Natural Medicine’s College of Classical Chinese Medicine and Helfgott School of Graduate Studies in their Master of Science in Nutrition program, where she teaches graduate students in the study of Chinese Dietetics and its application in Western society. She is the author of Nutritional Healing with Chinese Medicine: + 175 Recipes for Optimal Health and lives and works out of Portland, Oregon.

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